What Happens Backstage at the Opry?
Brittany Battista. Published with permission from the Grand Ole Opry.
Opry member Garth Brooks once said “the real show is backstage” at the Opry, where a team of passionate staff members help make the 94-year-old show come to life every night.
The Grand Ole Opry is the country’s longest-running radio show. Since 1925, it has been broadcast over the course of 4,600 consecutive Saturdays as thousands of world-class artists have performed more than 500,000 songs in its history.
As the audience eagerly awaits the 7 p.m. showtime in the Grand Ole Opry House’s auditorium, there’s a whole other show happening backstage that started hours before, led by an assortment of players who work behind the scenes.
A laudable display of organized chaos backstage is imperative to the operation of the show, day in and day out. Those who haven’t experienced the Opry’s bustling hallways before showtime may wonder: What does it take to raise that red curtain every night?
“I’ve said it for the record a thousand times. I’ll state it again a thousand times. This is the pinnacle of what I do. Nothing has ever touched being a member of the Grand Ole Opry.”
“If you take a look right here, you’ll see our member gallery,” describes Opry tour guide Kayleigh Walker to a group. “It starts in 1925 with Uncle Jimmy Thompson and goes from top to bottom and left to right in order of membership induction.”
Eager visitors are welcomed backstage each day to walk in their heroes’ footsteps and learn the Grand Ole Opry’s storied history. Unbeknownst to many of them, the magic that makes each show is being prepared right before their eyes.
Backstage hospitality supervisor Diana McBride arrives at 1:00 p.m. to start transforming backstage into the home that the artists have come to know. Crafting the familiar smell of fresh popcorn and sight of sweet tea in the family room is just a small part of her role as a liaison between artists and the Opry. Long before artists and their guests arrive, McBride ensures each dressing room captures the perpetual spirit of the Opry.
“I love to serve others. Before I was here, [the artists] had no one that stayed back here to guide them and to answer their questions, so that just kind of became me,” McBride says. “They know they can come to me and ask me anything. Artists will come in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I forgot a hairbrush,’ and if I don’t have one in my stash, I’ll run to the mall and get one.”
Fast-forward a few hours and buzz begins to grow in the backstage halls as more of the show team trickles in.
Even the most fun jobs in the world aren’t without their share of paperwork. The success of the Opry is dependent on meticulous record-keeping. Before every show, a new lineup, event sheet and dressing room list is distributed among the backstage teams. Stage manager Tyler Bryan receives the lineup at 3 p.m. and uses it to gauge how to keep the show on schedule.
“We plan [the show] all out, but you have to have room for contingency because there is always something that will not go exactly as planned,” Bryan says. “Sometimes we have to do a last-minute change. In all this planning, we’re counting on everything to work because unlike most of the shows you go see, we have one commercial to do a band change.”
The Grand Ole Opry is broadcast live on 650 AM WSM and online, meaning the show must go on even if an artist runs late or equipment malfunctions. Prior to showtime, Bryan’s team of six stagehands collaborate seamlessly as if they were operating with one shared brain.
Around 5 p.m., artists begin to arrive in their own cars, removing traffic cones from their backstage parking spaces themselves. Performing on the Opry is the pinnacle for many artists, but even still, their arrival to the Opry is a humbling experience.
Just inside the artist entrance, security guards Jim Schermerhorn and Ron Oniszczak tend their post as they wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to the safety of artists and fans.
“[The artists] don’t get to the stage until they get past us,” Oniszczak says. “It’s as simple as that.”
“We are basically the first line of defense for anybody that shouldn’t be here,” Schermerhorn added.
Oniszczak and Schermerhorn are the first and last faces artists see backstage. These men have guarded the halls of country music history with pride and have become a friendly, inviting face to many of country music’s greatest icons.
In the final hour leading up to showtime, a quiet settles in the hallways as an energy builds in the dressing rooms, now occupied with artists and their guests. Up front, the stage has been set for showtime with microphones, music stands, pews, instruments and speakers. A soft rumble of guests making their way to their seats in the auditorium can be heard from the other side of the curtain.
This scene is a far cry from the barren stage the audio team set foot on just hours prior. Audio services supervisor Mark Thomas works with the team responsible for the transformation of the stage.
“We start everything from scratch every day,” Thomas explained, “When we strike the stage, that means there’s nothing on there but the barn, so we have to lay out all the different cables for electricity — just miles and miles of cables — microphone signals and speakers on stage.”
Overall, there are 80 audio inputs on the stage that are used to broadcast the show to the auditorium audience, artists on stage, and on WSM. Each input is checked daily by the audio team as part of their stage setup routine.
Before country music fans in the audience hear the polished versions of their favorite songs, artists and the Opry house band are running through the stripped-down version backstage in the Jimmy Capps Music Room, a hub for pre-show rehearsals. Music director Kerry Marx is no stranger to the curious crowds that gather around the space to watch the band prepare for the evening’s songs.
“As music director, I’m always trying to make sure that artists get what they need as far as when they’re on stage and that they know how to get out of there, whether they’re going to talk before they sing or walk out to music,” Marx says. “All those elements change because everybody has a different way to do it.”
By 6:30 p.m., the Opry band has already studied their handwritten music and the lineup, but when the artists start to arrive, live harmonies resonate through the halls. Band rehearsals, instrument tuning, the shuffling of equipment, and conversation bring backstage to life.
“It seems like at a certain time in the evening things just kind of get a little lively, there is a little buzz in the air, McBride says. “It’s kind of hard to describe but all of the sudden everybody is just busy.”
“The Grand Ole Opry, to a country singer, is what Yankee Stadium is to a baseball player. Broadway to an actor. It’s the top of the ladder, the top of the mountain. You don’t just play the Opry; you live it.”
In the last few moments leading up to showtime, most of the behind-the-scenes frenetic energy can be found stage right. The evening’s first performer waits in the wings as crowds gather and chat in the Family Room just around the corner, all while Opry staff members take their places.
“Five minutes to showtime, five minutes to showtime,” Bryan announces through the radio to the team.
To those sitting on the other side of the curtain, the show is just beginning. But the frenzied crescendo backstage is brought down to a simmer as the last five minutes serve as a moment of reflection for the Opry team.
“Right before the curtain goes up is the last bit of calm before the storm, when you’re running over some last-minute things in your head, making sure everything is lining up and you’ve got everything in order,” Thomas says. “It’s like that last breath when the lights are still down and it’s quiet.”
These final moments of quiet are possibly the most rewarding as the Opry crew prepares to put its work to the test.
“My job is not an easy job, but in a lot of ways it’s also very easy because the artists are great to work with, the band is great, the stagehands are great because everybody takes care of what they are supposed to,” Marx says. “This job is kind of a pinnacle of being in the music industry in Nashville because it’s really demanding, and these guys, they bring it every night.”
Now dimly lit, the Family Room sits empty. Archie Campbell’s lively mural A Good-Natured Riot watches over the space, serving as an enduring metaphor of the Opry backstage experience as life imitates art nightly. The Grand Ole Opry is not only a cherished oasis for artists but also for those who work at the Opry. Without their hard work, the Grand Ole Opry would be a shell of itself.
Once the curtain has been drawn shut and the artists head home, the team wraps up another historic night on the Opry stage. As staff members come down from the high of another show and walk out those back doors, they can look forward to doing it all over again tomorrow.
“I’ve come to respect the fact that the Opry is so much more than just a show,” McBride says. “They talk about how we are a family, and I feel that from my experience backstage, we really are a family here.”
“You know, I don’t think if I played it a million times it would be any less special than the first time I played.”
Photographs courtesy of BRC Imagination Arts.